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Having a Coaching Mindset

BY Andy Kirkland

Coaching athletes is more than just creating a training plan. Coach Andy Kirkland outlines his ideas on the skills, knowledge, and mindset needed to be successful and help athletes achieve their goals.

Coaching isn’t like a regular job. It’s a vocation that you willingly become involved in to help others become better at their sport. Although I’m an active coach, my focus is more on developing other coaches. To be able to do so requires an expert understanding of what it takes to be good at the job.

In academic circles, there’s a debate on what a coach is and what they do. This debate will never reach a conclusion because biases towards particular schools of thought cloud the issue. These schools include biophysical, pedagogical, cognitive, psychological, sociological and psycho-sociological. The biophysical approach is the one most of us are familiar with because it focuses on the physiological development of athletes.

A Holistic Approach

I prefer a more holistic perspective, believing that the job is simply to enhance performance of those who we coach. The holistic bit is that coaching is a people business and they come with infinite potential and pose countless challenges.

The complexity in coaching lies within the fact that performance is a function of three things:

  1. Who the athlete is (mind, body and ‘soul’).
  2. The athlete’s environment, both past and present.
  3. The task they are performing.

Getting to grips with how all of these components interact goes beyond understanding the Theory of Relativity. However, most of us do not possess the brainpower of Albert Einstein so a simpler approach to understanding athletes is required.

Retail marketers probably have the best understanding of the ways humans behave. They use that understanding to influence our buying habits and do so through through market segmentation. This process cuts through the complexity by grouping people by where they live, socioeconomic status, age, gender, and what they desire.

Needs Versus Wants

In the coaching business, our focus is typically on a specific demographic, termed as Personal Referenced Excellence1 athletes. They are people who dream big, who want to achieve personal bests, and complete challenging events. They can also afford to pay a coach to help them on their way. Their coach is a commodity who provides training efficiencies. Many athletes look for the path of least resistance and you are their guide. They may dream of being a pro; however, other commitments or lack of ability stands in their way.

Coaching such athletes requires a different approach than for elite athletes. We must balance what we believe athletes need with what they want.

Imagine you are a waiter in a restaurant and an overweight customer orders a 14’ triple cheese pizza. There would be trouble if you came back with a kale and chia seed salad instead. That is despite knowing that a salad is what they need. A better approach would be to recommend the fruit parfait rather than fudge brownie for dessert. That way they get a big bit of what they want, a little of what they need, they tip and visit again. Over time, we may be able to influence their behaviour for the better. Coaching is similar.

In endurance sport, we’re led by the biophysical school of thought. We use metrics such as Functional Threshold Power (FTP) and Training Stress Score® (TSS®) to guide us. We love the sexy side of the sport, wanting to know what the pro’s do and what equipment they’re using. This is the type of stuff athletes often want guidance from their coach on.

Coaching Men and Women

As a rule of thumb, there is quite a difference between the male and female market though. Dare I say it, females are more coachable because they are more interested in needs rather than wants. The challenge for many coaches is to be able to step outside our own thinking box to truly understand what these needs are.

How To Solve Problems

As coaches, we’ve often asked questions about a particular product or training method. The thought processes we go through before arriving at the answer are really important in our effectiveness as a coach.

Recently I was asked my opinion on Best Bike Split. Dave Schell and Joe Friel at TrainingPeaks had told me it was awesome. That’s important because I trust their opinions and the brand. I would be failing in my duties if I stopped there though. I also know the product uses a deterministic mathematical model, reliant on fundamental physics, to determine optimal pacing strategy and predicted performance time. I know the model works theoretically and I’ve tested in real world conditions and found it to be accurate, typically within ±2 percent. All this knowledge combined meant that I am confident in recommending the product.

In contrast, an athlete asked me my opinion on the use of DNA testing to inform training as his coach was offering this service. My gut feeling said that such products were ‘unhelpful’ but I held fire and said I would get back to him. I’d previously been at a conference where a leading expert was categorical in his condemnation of such products. However, scientists can often be overly cautious and have biases too. I knew the area of genetics was advancing rapidly and we were learning new things all the time. However, research in the area has typically been conducted using large groups of participants rather than when n=1. My gut feeling was further supported by a consensus paper in the British Journal of Sports Medicine2. I emailed the athlete this paper without guilt, very conscious that his trust in the coach may be undermined.

The Hippocratic Oath

I’m a great believer that coaches should take take the Hippocratic oath, committing to do no harm and centre what we do on the well-being of our athletes. Upholding this oath takes more than good intentions. It requires intellectual rigour and a willingness to learn. An effective coach recognises their own biases and is able to solve problems.

As a coach developer, I like to help coaches widen their field of vision. It’s not just about following what the textbook says. Endurance sport is more than training metrics and performance enhancing products. It’s a people business and to be successful in it requires imagination, creativity, and a great ability to solve problems using both gut feeling and evidence-based practice.


  1. Bailey, R. et al. (2010, March). Participant Development in Sport: An Academic Review. Retrieved from http://www.sportni.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/ParticipantDevelopmentinSport.pdf
  2. Webborn, N. et al. (2015, November 18). Direct-to-consumer genetic testing for predicting sports performance and talent identification: Consensus statement. Retrieved from https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/49/23/1486
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About Andy Kirkland

Andy Kirkland Ph.D. is a Lecturer in Sports Coaching at the University of Stirling, delivering on the MSc. in Performance Coaching programme. He is an expert in endurance performance an active triathlon coach and a Chartered Scientist. He worked for British Cycling for 6 years as a coach educator and is a TrainingPeaks certified coach. You can find out more about Andy on his website.

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